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    Smoking Bill Introduced

    Move follows a vote by the California Medical Association to push for change in state law.

    LOS ANGELES -- A California lawmaker unveiled a bill today that would raise California's smoking age from 18 to 21, making it the highest in the nation.

    The bill would make it illegal for anyone under 21 to purchase tobacco products, including cigarettes, in the state, according to the Associated Press. All 50 states set a minimum age of at least 18 following a 1992 directive from Congress. In three states ? Alabama, Alaska and Utah ? the legal age is 19.

    State Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) said the goal is to cut smoking rates among kids in their teens, the age when most smokers pick up the habit. More than 400,000 deaths each year in the United States are attributable to tobacco-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The American Lung Association estimates about 90 percent of all smokers begin smoking before the age of 21.

    The move follows a February vote by the California Medical Association to push for the change in state law. The American Lung Association initially was cool to the medical group's proposal, saying it preferred to concentrate on enforcing current tobacco-related laws. Last week, however, Paul Knepprath, a lobbyist for the American Lung Association of California, said the group would support the proposed legislation, despite what he called a lack of evidence that a hike in the minimum age would reduce youth smoking, the report said.

    Anti-smoking activists fear the bill could derail other tobacco-related legislative efforts, including continued pushes to boost taxes on cigarettes. California Gov. Gray Davis has proposed tacking 50 cents on each pack of cigarettes to help close an expected $23.6-billion budget shortfall. The American Lung Association and others are pushing to add an additional 15 cents on top of that to go to anti-smoking efforts.

    Brendan McCormick, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco company, said the company believes a better approach to curbing youth smoking is enforcement of existing laws.

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